Exclusion of the “Model Minority”: How Unconscious, Micro-Level Racism is Used to Shut Out Asian American Applicants From the Nation’s Elite Universities

by Tabi Yoo


Asians are said to be the new Jews of the college admissions world at elite universities. As Jewish students had, too, once suffered discrimination at the hands of college admissions officials at America’s leading universities, Asian American students are now being ostracized by these same elite universities. This is a comparison not only being made by academics and civil rights groups, but also by mass media. Like Asian Americans today, high-achieving Jewish applicants in the 1920s immediately faced exclusion from Ivy League schools when they began to compete with WASP – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant – prep students. In order to cap Jewish enrollment, Ivy League schools began to ask about family background and sought vague qualities within their Jewish applicants, such as character, vigor, manliness, and leadership (Chen 2012: 1). Consequently, because various college admissions officials have been cited reasoning their rejection of qualified Asian students based on the applicants’ failure to exhibit any “individuality,” proving to be “the same” as every other Asian applicant, the Asian American experience with the nation’s elite universities is now being paralleled to that of the Jews decades earlier.

The case of first generation Korean American student Henry Park illustrates this very exclusion and discrimination against Asian American applicants. Henry was ranked in his class 14th out of 79 students at the Groton School, considered a super-competitive prep school in Groton, Massachusetts, received a 1560 out of 1600 on the SAT, an 800 on the SAT II math (the harder of the two math exams), a 760 on the SAT II Latin exam, and an SAT II physics exam (Golden 2006: 197). On top of his undeniable academic success, Henry played violin, competed on the cross-country team, and co-wrote a paper with two classmates that was published in a respected math journal. Solely based on his academics and extra-curricular activities, Henry seems as though he would be the ideal student for any elite university. However, this was not the case, as Henry was rejected from nearly every top, American university one can think of: Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Stanford, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). However, while Henry was being rejected from all these top universities that he arguably deserved to be admitted to, acceptance letters to the same universities were flooding the mailboxes of his lower-achieving classmates. Henry’s mother, Suki Park commented on her son’s rejections, “‘I was naïve. I thought college admissions had something to do with academics’” (Golden 2006: 198). What does college admissions have to do with? Was there anything Henry could have done differently, or was his race the culprit of his college admissions downfall?

Deemed an “overrepresented” minority on college campuses nationwide, Asian American applicants are not granted the same preferential treatment as other minority groups. Labeled the nation’s “model minority,” Asian Americans are viewed as a minority group that no longer needs any special attention nor help, having experienced increasing wealth and upward social mobility through their hard work and determination. However, it is this exact, pervasive perception of Asian Americans that is the root cause of their exclusion from elite universities. One cannot argue that Asian Americans are still as underrepresented as other minority groups at the nation’s leading institutions of higher education. However, is it fair to label them as “overrepresented,” and is their supposed “overrepresentation” a fair justification to institute quotas in order to limit their enrollment? Moreover, is this reasoning just a convenient tool to veil the true micro-level racism that governs, whether consciously or unconsciously, the way in which college admissions offices, guided by pre-conceived notions and biased attitudes, unfairly assess and reject Asian applicants?

I will focus on the way in which Asian Americans – concentrating on those from east Asian countries – are discriminated against by college admissions officials and analyze whether or not limiting their enrollment, taking into consideration the various justifications given, is valid and fair. Furthermore, I will delve into this discrimination against Asian American applicants not just through the apparent use of enrollment caps on Asian applicants, but also through different societal factors that work against them, from their subjection to racial stereotypes and cultural biases to their lack of the cultural and social capital that is subjectively valued by elite universities. Ultimately, I will find that one cannot rightfully compare the Asian American experience with college admissions to the Jewish experience of the 1920s. The various factors that all contribute to the exclusion of Asian American from these elite institutions reveal an unconscious, micro-level racism, which heavily influences college admissions officials’ stereotyped evaluation of all Asian applicants. This racism practiced in college admissions offices proves more covert, and is thus harder to detect and prove, especially when such racial stereotypes are founded on false notions centered around the seemingly favorable “model minority” label that Asians have come to bear . Thus, whether or not Asian Americans will be able to triumph over such discrimination as their Jewish peers have successfully done is uncertain.


In order to delve into this issue and draw such conclusions, I sought out different studies that were able to answer or analyze different issues within the bigger topic of Asian American discrimination within the college admissions process. Most scholarship on the topic admits to the existence of some form of discrimination that Asians have faced or still are still encountering within the college admissions process, yet little scholarship has really probed into the actual discrimination, nor has considered its root causes and its various facets. Through initial Google Scholar and JSTOR searches, using more hot-button search terms, such as “model minority,” and related search pairings, such as “Asian American” and “college admissions,” I was able to find scholarship on the general topic that enabled me to figure out the breakdown of my research into specific, core sections: Minority Preference in Admissions; Evidence of Broad Discrimination Against Asians in Admissions; Biased Competition Between the Asian Minority and the White Majority; Diversity of Asian Americans in Their Experience; Social and Cultural Capital: How Asians Fall Behind. Through this breakdown, I was able to then conduct a more guided search to find specific literatures, which ranged from law reviews to psychology studies. This variety and expansion of the topic that moved outside the realm of just college admissions and the Asian experience with college admissions allowed me to really hone in on the issues unique to Asian American discrimination within college admissions. The following will discuss and delve into these findings, analyzing the both conspicuous and covert practices of exclusion against Asian American applicants.


The majority of scholarship dedicated to the minority experience in the college admissions process, specifically within America’s elite universities, tends to disregard or simply ignore the Asian American experience. Although considered a minority group within American society, Asian Americans are likened to the white majority in the world of college admissions, and are thus not treated in the same manner as their minority counterpart. In fact, for decades Asian Americans have been labeled the “model minority” by the American public, deeming them as “successful minorities who have quietly moved to the pinnacle of success in various contexts through hard work and determination” (Wong & Halgin 2006: 38). However, many scholars, like psychologists Frieda Wong and Richard Halgin, argue that such a label is more a bane than a blessing for Asian Americans, impeding rather than facilitating access to various opportunities, while also resulting in discrimination and societal indifference regarding their needs (Wong & Halgin 2006: 38). The woes of the “model minority” categorization is especially evident in the treatment of Asian Americans by those in charge of granting access to the nation’s higher education.

A brief historical foundation is necessary in order to understand the neglect and inequity that Asian Americans have come to endure within the world of college admissions. The pan-Asian identity that swept across the nation’s campuses during the 1970s was a result of the Immigration Act of 1965, which changed the composition of the American population by eliminating the restrictive quotas installed by the Immigration Act of 1924. The Act of 1965 led to a rapid influx of Asian and Latin American immigrants, and the size of the Asian American population, as a result, increased from one million in 1960 to 1.5 million in 1970, and eventually rose to 3.6 million in 1980 (Karabel 2005: 500). The term “Asian American” is not rooted in history nor tradition, but rather was a term popularized by Chinese and Japanese students during this wave of Asian immigrants coming into the United States in the 1970s in order to be included in affirmative action programs (Golden 2006: 202). Consequently, instead of individually counting Asian immigrants separately by their countries of origin, the federal government introduced “Asian or Pacific Islander” as a data collection category in 1977, which was defined as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, or the Pacific Islands” (Golden 2006: 202). With the addition of this new ethnic category encompassing all Asian immigrants came a huge surge of Asian applications and enrollment to college campuses across the country. This greatly affected the student body within elite universities, such as Harvard, where the number of Asian American applicants more than tripled between 1967 and 1985 – from 461 to 1,677 – and, as a result, the Asian American proportion of the freshman class rose from 3.6 percent in 1976 to 6.5 in 1978 and to 10.8 percent in 1985 (Karabel 2005: 500).

The success of Asian American student mobilization, however, provoked a backlash that is arguably still affecting the Asian American population in its experience within the college admissions process. Schools across the nation, such as the University of California at Berkley in 1984, began to declare that they would no longer qualify Asian Americans for affirmative action as an underrepresented group. In fact, Asian Americans began to be seen by college admissions officials as “overrepresented” in comparison to the size of their overall population in the United States. There was a general consensus that there were “too many Asians” present at these elite institutions, and as a result, Asian American admission rates began to drastically decrease despite the continual increase in Asian American applicants. When accused of such discrimination against Asian Americans, many university officials justified what they termed “preferential admissions” on the grounds of the necessity in creating a diverse student body. An assistant dean at Harvard stated that admissions officers at prestigious institutions had contended that “further increases of Asians would diminish the diversity of students for which [these universities] strive” (Tsuang 1989: 671). Thus, for minority groups that were still deemed “underrepresented”, especially Black and Latino students, their race increased their chances in college admittance, whereas the same check-box on Asian American students’ college applications proved to hurt their chances. Using diversity as a justification for limiting Asian admission rates implies that a minority applicant’s potential contribution to an institution’s student body solely derives from his or her race, yet the Asian applicant’s racial value is negated by the presence of “too many” of his or her color. Thus, what is seen as an advantage to other minority groups proves to be a disadvantage for Asian American applicants, who are no longer considered a “protected minority” nor are given “positive weight” for their race (Tsuang 1989: 661).

A study done by Princeton’s population researchers Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung to examine how preferences for different types of applicants for admission to elite universities influence the number and composition of admitted students is extremely illustrative of this minority preference in college admissions that is not given to Asian American applicants. By eliminating the admission bonuses for Black and Hispanic applicants, using admissions data from three elite universities, Espenshade and Chung found that acceptance rates for Black candidates would fall from 33.7 percent to 12.2 percent, while the acceptance rate for Hispanic candidates would be cut in half, from 26.8 percent to 12.9 percent (Espenshade & Chung 2005: 298). However, Asian applicants would be the biggest winners if race were no longer considered in college admissions, as their acceptance rate would increase from 17.6 percent to 23.4 percent (Espenshade & Chung 2005: 298). To look at the weight placed on minority preference in another light, an earlier study done by the same researchers using data from the National Study of College Experience found that Black applicants receive the equivalent of 230 extra SAT points, Hispanic applicants receive an additional 185 points, but Asian American applicants lose an equivalent of 50 points (Espenshade & Chung 2005: 293-294), all because of their respective race. Thus, their study further proves the stark disadvantage of being Asian when applying to America’s elite universities.


All scholarship that does focus on the Asian American experience within the college admissions process recognizes at least some form of discrimination – whether unconscious or outwardly biased – against Asian Americans starting in the 1980s after the surge of Asian American enrollment to the nation’s top universities. One will find it hard to ignore such discrimination as numbers from conducted investigations and their resulting reports prove the disparity between the either constant or decreasing number of Asian American students accepted with the increasing number of Asian American applicants, and the disparity among admission rates between Asian American and white applicants.

To reiterate what was mentioned in the previous section, once Asian Americans were eligible for affirmative action programs, the makeup of the student body at the nation’s leading universities began to change, as the number of Asian students started to dramatically increase. Once college officials no longer believed Asian Americans to qualify for such programs meant for underrepresented minorities, their rate of admission to these elite institutions began to decline while the number of applicants continued to rise. Such change did not go unnoticed by the public, and the disparity was so evident that between 1983 and 1986, Asian Americans charged elite colleges and universities in the United States with using discriminatory quotas to limit the enrollment of Asian American applicants, leading to in-house investigations (Takagi 1990: 578). Some of the most prestigious schools were the center of this controversy, including Brown, Princeton, Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA. Charges were initiated by the Brown Asian American Association, the East Coast Asian Student Union, and the Asian American Task Force of University Admissions, who all defined the problem of Asian admissions as one of discrimination against Asian Americans by university officials, and thus sought to document this inequality in university admissions (Takagi 1990: 579).

The report that collated and published the East Coast Asian Student Union’s findings concluded that while the number of Asian American applicants rose dramatically between 1978 and 1983, the actual number of Asian Americans enrolled at various universities barely increased, which they interpreted as an “alarming barrier” that had been placed in order to keep Asian Americans “from seeking higher education and better lives” (Takagi 1990: 579-580). Delving into a specific institution, the Brown Asian American Student Association issued a 30-page report on trends in Asian admissions at Brown and found that Asian Americans had the lowest admit rate of any population in the applicant pool despite the steady increase in the Asian portion of the pool, also noting that the Asian admission rate was declining more sharply that the overall student admission rate (Takagi 1990: 580). Furthermore, both the East Coast Asian Student Union and the Brown Asian American Student Association found that Asian admission rates were persistently lower than white admission rates despite the fact that Asians were academically as qualified as their white counterparts. Concerns were not only voiced by the Asian American community, but also by the U.S. government. In 1990, a report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that from 1979 to 1988, Harvard admitted only 13.2 percent of Asian Americans, compared with 17.4 percent of their white peers (Golden 2006: 202). Similarly, at Brown, the report, attesting to the Brown AASA’s findings, concluded that beginning with the Class of 1985, Asian Americans were admitted at a lower rate than whites, with such disparity continuing until the Class of 1987, where only 14% of Asian applicants, compared to the 19% of white applicants, were accepted into the university (Tsuang 1989: 661). Not limited to east coast institutions, a similar situation confirming an escalation of Asian applicants meeting a fairly constant or declining Asian admission rate was found to be occurring at Stanford University.

University officials responded differently to such claims, some denying the allegations, others admitting to unintentionally discriminatory admissions policies, and the rest turning to the broad public discussion of diversity as a defense of such policies that were seemingly discriminatory against Asian applicants. Despite their various justifications, however, what remains completely evident and irrefutable is that Asian Americans were not treated in the same manner as other minority applicants who were still considered underrepresented and thus received preferential treatment. Race was working against these Asian American applicants. This is not to say that Black and Latino applicants should not be considered underrepresented and should not receive preferential treatment, but if this is the ruling principle guiding the practices of college admissions offices, then Asian Americans should be receiving equal treatment as their white peers; both groups represent qualified applicants and are essentially running the applicant pool of every American elite institution. However, as seen with the reports and numbers above, this is not the case, and an analysis of the reasoning behind this will give further insight into the reality that Asian American applicants are in fact being shut out of these elite universities.


Studies have shown that a much higher proportion of Asian Americans than whites is actually eligible for college admissions. Not only does a much higher proportion of Asian Americans take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, – or more commonly known as the SAT – but also Asian Americans have proven to have a higher level of performance in both national standardized test scores and high school grade point averages than their white counterparts (Bunzel & Au 1987: 50). Besides the SAT verbal score, mainly due to the fact that a large number of Asian Americans are recent immigrants or have immigrant parents, Asians tend to score higher on average than whites in all other SAT sections. At Harvard, for instance, Asian Americans had average verbal and math scores of 742 and 725, while white students had average scores of 666 and 689 (Bunzel & Au 1987: 55). Similar patterns of Asian Americans scoring higher than the non-minority population were found at Princeton.

Moreover, when looking at Asian applicants’ involvement in activities that fall outside the classroom, they do not lag behind white applicants as much as society commonly, yet ignorantly, assumes them to. This idea of Asian applicants not being “involved” in the campus community through extracurricular activities and only concentrating on academic success is a pervasive stereotype that negatively affects the perspective of Asian applicants that college officials hold. However, studies conducted on Asian and white high school students have shown that although Asian American participation rates in sports and artistic activities were slightly lower than their white peers, the differences were not significant (Bunzel & Au 1987: 55). Moreover, in intellectual activities, such as honorary clubs, school newspapers, and subject-matter clubs, figures show that Asian Americans actually tended to participate more so than their white peers. Thus, the stereotypical argument made that Asian American students are not as “involved” as white students and exclusively focus on their academics highly contestable.

Furthermore, a much larger proportion of Asian Americans continue their education past the age of 17 (Bunzel & Au 1987: 51). Therefore, to use the percentage of Asian Americans within the general American population for calculating the number of Asian American applicants to be admitted as a fair representation is faulty when such a high percentage within the nation’s population are more than qualified to go to college. Thus, one would think that Asian American applicants, with a higher proportion continuing their education past high school and with better overall qualifications, would at least be accepted to these elite universities at an equal rate as their white peers. Why, then, do Asian American rates of admission still fall behind?

The only place to then turn is the subjective, supplemental criteria required within college applications, where stereotypes with racist undertones play a role in influencing college admissions officials’ decisions to reject qualified Asian American students. College admissions officials take this opportunity to judge the applicants’ personality traits, deeming some more desirable than others. Thus, if comparable in all other aspects of the application, Asian American applicants face lower rates of admissions than their white peers because they possess and exude traits and characteristics that both differ from white applicants and are less valued by college admissions offices. It is no surprise that any sort of reliance on such supplemental criteria in regards to who is and is not admitted would raise controversy in the college admissions world. More often times than not, Asian American applicants have suffered due to this subjectivity, as college admissions officials have proven to utilize this section of the application to criticize and disregard Asian Americans hoping for entry into their elite institutions.

Harvard admissions evaluators have illustrated the very injustice that comes with this dangerous area of assessment. Known to stereotype their Asian applicants, these Harvard admissions evaluators have ranked Asian American candidates, on average, below whites in “personal qualities” (Golden 2006: 202). In their comments written in Asian applicants’ files, Harvard admissions staff repeatedly described Asian Americans as “being quiet/shy, science/math oriented, and hard workers” (Golden 2006: 202-203). The same unfair stereotyping is practiced in most elite universities. Drawing back to Henry Park’s case discussed at the beginning of the paper, MIT dean of admissions Marilee Jones rationalized his rejection, too, by resorting to stereotypes. Unable to look at his application, Jones remarked that “‘it’s possible that Henry Park looked like a thousand other Korean kids with the exact same profile of grades and activities and temperament. My guess is that he just wasn’t involved or interesting enough to surface to the top’” (Golden 2006, 201). Jones quite possibly exemplifies the prejudice that plagues these admissions offices; she made such a stereotyped judgment about Henry Park simply because of his race and nothing else. She assumed that he was like every other Asian applicant in every aspect, and thus not good enough for admission into her institution, without even having the chance to merely glance at his application.

Asian American applicants’ downfall is at the hands of these college admissions officials who fail to look at the applicants on an individual level. At Brown, the Corporation Committee on Minority Affairs conducted a thorough internal investigation regarding this issue, as the Brown admissions process relied heavily on subjective judgments of applicants’ nonacademic qualities. The Committee’s report found that all the admissions staff they spoke to stated that Asian American applicants received comparatively low non-academic ratings (Karabel 2005: 501). The Committee attributed these unjustifiably low ratings to the cultural bias and stereotypes which prevail in the admissions office, which prevent admission officers from appreciating and accurately evaluating the backgrounds and nuances of the Asian American culture and experience. (Karabel 2005: 501). For instance, many college admissions officials stereotype Asian Americans as narrow mathematical or scientific paragons, or more commonly put, as “quasi-robots programmed by their parents to ace math and science tests (Golden 2006: 201). As a result, when an Asian applicant expresses an inclination towards the math or sciences, he or she is more likely to be dismissed. However, what these officials fail to even consider, let alone understand, is that such an inclination for math and science is partly due to the fact that many of these Asian American applicants began their educations abroad and thus arrived in the United States with a solid grounding in math, but little to no knowledge in English (Brand 1987). These Asian students then feel as though they will be less discriminated against and more fairly judged in areas like math and science. Is it therefore just to punish Asian applicants for making the best of their situation and following the path they believe will most likely lead to their success?

Furthermore, there seems to be a double standard within the value given to certain personality traits by college admissions evaluators. Many academics, for example, from Harvard psychology professor Jerome Kagan (Brand 1987) to Stanford sociology and education professor Stanford M. Dornbusch (Bunzel & Au 1987: 56) believe that there is no question that Asian students work the hardest out of any ethnic group – minority and majority – and dedicate a greater number of hours on homework than any of their peers. One would thus believe this would work towards Asian applicants’ advantage, – their committed industriousness – yet many admissions officers view Asian Americans’ tendency to be “driven” in a negative light, as the Harvard admissions evaluators mentioned above are guilty of, continually referring to their Asian applicants as “hard workers”, as though that was fair reasoning for their rejection. Moreover, a white applicant’s “focused interest” in the sciences might be interpreted positively as illustrative of the student delving deeply into one topic and learning it thoroughly (Bunzel & Au 1987: 62). However, the same “focused interest” for an Asian applicant could be seen as the student being guilty of only having “narrow interests” (Bunzel & Au 1987: 62). If seemingly positive qualities, like a hard work ethic, are contributing to the dismissal of Asian Americans, one cannot help but question whether or not there is any possibility for Asian applicants to conquer the discrimination, imbedded with racial stereotyping and cultural biases, they face at the hands of college admissions officials, who are essentially determining their future trajectory in higher education.


There lies a stark problem within most scholarship that delves into the issue of discrimination against Asian American applicants in the college admissions process. This issue is rooted in the very term “Asian American” that was created by the federal government in 1977, as previously discussed. The term “Asian American” encompasses the vast minority population of Asians in American society and categorizes them into one ethnic group, ignoring both the variety of subpopulations within the all-inclusive category and the diversity within each subpopulation. Investigative reporter and author Diane Divoky gives weight to such differences when noting, “…a recently arrived Hmong refugee has virtually nothing in common with an affluent Japanese-American student whose parents were born and raised in the Midwest. In assuming that all Asians are one people with similar educational needs, we give fair treatment to none” (Divoky 1988: 220). TIME Magazine’s David Brand makes a strikingly similar argument, illustrating the fact that the term “Asian American” covers a variety of national, cultural, and religious heritages, stating,

“Some are refugees from sad countries torn apart by war. Others are children of the stable middle class whose parents came to the U.S. in search of a better life. Some came with nothing, not even the rudiments of English. Others came with skills and affluence. Many were born in the U.S. to immigrant families” (Brand 1987).

Thus, forgetting these potentially drastic differences within the Asian American minority group can prove dangerous to their fair treatment within the college admissions process, not only when competing with other ethnic groups, but also when competing with each other. By grouping such a diverse population under one heading, college admissions officials are blinded by the Asian applicant’s race and are more likely to ignore other aspects of the applicant that could make him or her stand out. As seen, it is more probably for these officials to judge the Asian applicants through a racially stereotyped lens rather than a careful, genuine assessment.

The assumed homogeneity of the Asian American applicant pool proves extremely faulty and problematic. Distinct differences have been found amongst Asian American subpopulations in various factors that play crucial roles in the college admissions process. Studies have found that larger proportions of Chinese and Koreans attend highly selective colleges than Filipinos and Southeast Asians, who are then more likely to attend four-year public colleges, whereas Chinese and Koreans are more likely to attend private institutions and universities (Teranishi, Ceja, Antonio & Allen 2004: 535). Furthermore, parental income plays a different role among different ethnic groups in regards to the types of colleges their children attend (Teranishi, Ceja, Antonio & Allen 2004: 535), giving weight to the notion that the diversity of economic class within the different Asian American subpopulations is not something that should be ignored. This is especially seen in the correlation between socioeconomic class and the rate of taking SAT preparation courses. Since scoring well on standardized exams plays a huge part in an applicant’s chances of admittance to a university, SAT preparation courses are a huge advantage that is not offered to everyone and available only to those who can afford it. Studies show that those who can afford it are majority Chinese and Korean Americans. Consequently, all other subpopulations of Asian Americans potentially fall behind in this area of the college admissions process, and it is thus unfair to judge all Asian groups of different heritages in the same manner, as most college admissions officials do.

Admittedly, some admissions officers do feel that Asian Americans are a socioeconomically diverse population and Asian American applicants from working-class backgrounds should be included in affirmative action admissions programs (Takagi 1992: 7). Others argue that Asian Americans should receive no special consideration whatsoever in the admissions process due to the large number of Asian applicants already attending their respective schools. However, no admissions officials have argued that special preference should be given to Asian Americans because of their race. The Asian American label that homogenizes all Asian subpopulations causes college admissions officials to expect a “model minority”, close-to-perfect application from every Asian American student. The higher expectations for Asian students thus prove most damaging to low-performing, ethnic groups trapped under the Asian American umbrella. Whereas students from Chinese, Korean, and Japanese families drive the high enrollments and SAT scores of Asian Americans at elite universities, Asian American students from countries like Laos, Cambodia, and the Philippines tend to come from poorer, less-educated families, have lower test scores, and are underrepresented in colleges compared with their population (Golden 2006: 204). UCLA professor of public policy Paul Ong even stated that this group of southeast Asians “are at the very bottom of the Asian American population, with poverty rates several times higher than the national average. Some Southeast Asian communities have higher welfare defendencies than any other groups, including Blacks and Latinos” (Golden 2006: 204). If considered as separate groups, these southeast Asian subpopulations could potentially qualify for affirmative action; however, although Pacific Islanders proved successful in 1997, Southeast Asians have failed in their attempts to lobby and secede from the Asian label (Golden 2006: 204).


Another form of cultural bias that works against Asian American applicants is not as noticeably discriminatory as the policies and practices undertaken by college admissions officials discussed above. There prevails a positive correlation between one’s social and cultural capital and one’s chances of admittance to the nation’s elite higher education institutions. The idea of cultural capital comes from renowned sociologist and intellectual Pierre Bourdieu, who sees class structure as reflecting the total volume of distribution of social (networks and connections), economic (wealth and income), and cultural (facility with the dominant culture, based on language and education) capital in society (Bourdieu and Passeron 1979). In the context of higher education, cultural capital, referring to both the instruments of appropriation of cultural goods and one’s accumulated stock of cultural wealth, has become increasingly important in the reproduction of class structure from generation to generation (Karen 1991: 351). Wealthy families feel the need to send their progeny to appropriate educational institutions for certification of their cultural capital, which legitimates the positions that their children will ultimately occupy in society (Karen 1991: 351). Understandably, one’s economic wealth and stability tend to correlate with one’s cultural capital, evidently leading to well-off families being well-endowed with cultural capital. This cultural capital is then automatically passed on to the children, who are raised in environments rich with cultural capital, and thus easily learn how to gain and utilize such capital. This enables children of wealthy families with high cultural capital to not only do well in school and standardized tests, but also to know how to incorporate themselves into society in a way that is culturally valued (Karen 1991: 351). Consequently, one’s orientation to the educational system, especially that of higher education, is structured by one’s social and cultural origins.

It is no surprise that Asian Americans applicants, who are either immigrants themselves or come from immigrant families, lag behind in the cultural capital that their mainly white, wealthy peers have been socialized into for so long. Immigrant parents often do not understand the American culture that their children are trying to assimilate into, a culture in which students are not expected to be completely passive and obedient, where questioning teachers is encouraged, and more importantly, a culture in which activities other than schoolwork are valued (Divoky 1988: 221). The education system in Asian countries proves extremely different than the education system in the United States, where in Asia, a student’s grades and test scores are the sole, objective means of determining his or her value as a student and thus acceptance to a top university. Therefore, either the children of immigrants that are only familiar with the Asian system of college admittance or immigrants themselves, Asian Americans, especially those of lower socioeconomic levels, find themselves completely unaware of the value American higher education institutions place on non-academic, subjective criteria. Many Asian American college applicants, who have outperformed their ethnic peers in the academic sense, feel as though academic achievement and college preparation serve as the merit through which applicants should be granted to highly selective colleges, not personal characteristics (Inkelas 2003: 606). This leaves many, like Henry Park’s mom, confused and lost as to what the inner-workings of the college admissions process truly entail.

Perhaps, the most obvious way in which one’s cultural capital is realized in its relationship to college admissions is legacy admission, which is highly valued and prioritized by elite universities across the country. Schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have been awarding extra points to children of alumni since their discrimination against Jewish applicants in the 1920s. In fact, legacy admission was a tool utilized by these institutions to limit the burgeoning numbers of Jewish and Catholic students on campus (Lamb 1993: 491). More than 70 years later, preference is still being given to legacy applicants at America’s leading universities. Ivy League admission officers argue that maintaining strong alumni relations is crucial to any university’s financial well-being, and the best way in upholding such relations is by accepting the alumni’s children (Megalli 1995: 71). However, a two-year investigation of Harvard by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights showed that legacy candidates admitted to Harvard are weaker than non-legacies in SAT scores, GPAs, class rank, extracurricular activities, and essentially every category of recommendations (Megalli 1995: 71). Nevertheless, at many leading schools, applicants with an alumni parent or parents are accepted at two to three times the rate of non-legacy applicants, a statistic especially exemplified at Harvard, which accepts around 16 percent of all applicants, but more than 35 percent of its legacy applicants. Yale, too, accepts 22 percent of all regular applicants, but accepts 45 percent of applicants of Yale alumnus (Megalli 1995: 72).

Most, if not all, scholarship on the matter note that such legacy admission negatively affects the Asian American applicant pool, completely hindering their chances of admittance despite their high qualifications. This coheres with the circumstances and backgrounds of many Asian American applicants, as previously discussed, who, to reiterate, are either immigrants themselves or come from immigrant parents. Evidently, it is rare for any of these applicants to be legacies at any of the elite universities in the United States. In fact, the reality of it is the majority of these legacies are white and belong to the upper level socioeconomic class in society. With Asian American applicants no longer receiving preferential treatment with other minority groups, they must compete on the same playing field as white applicants. Despite the fact that Asians tend to have higher and better qualifications required by universities for admittance, they are essentially helpless when it comes to the cultural capital possessed by their rich, white counterparts. Asian Americans can work as hard as they can to perfect their SAT scores, rise to the top rank of their high school classes, and even dedicate themselves to extracurricular activities, creating an impressive resume of college requirements and recommendations, but if it comes between accepting them or accepting a less-qualified legacy, the university is statistically more likely to accept the legacy. Thus, Asian Americans are subjected to both discriminatory policies, which has in and of itself caused higher admission rates for white applicants, and the leg up legacies have just because of their parents who have passed down and instilled their cultural capital.

Although there is nothing Asian American applicants can do about legacy preference in college admissions, some Asian Americans that come from a higher level of socioeconomic wealth have found a way to virtually buy the cultural capital deemed necessary for college admittance. This purchasable cultural capital refers to the sense of knowing what society, and thus college admissions officers, value culturally in how one inserts him or herself into society. Los Angeles Times contributor Frank Shyong’s look into a college preparatory class in Arcadia, a dominantly Chinese neighborhood in California, illustrates a way in which more affluent Asian Americans are dealing with their lack in cultural capital. HS2 Academy, the college prep business that Shyong specifically investigates, assumes that racial bias is a fact of college admissions and counsels students accordingly. Ann Lee, the co-founder of HS2 Academy states, “‘Everyone is in orchestra and plays piano. Everyone plays tennis. Everyone wants to be a doctor, and write about immigrating to America. You can’t get in with these cliché applications’” (Shyong 2015: 2). The Academy believes that helping Asian American students with college admissions requires embracing some stereotypes, – such as being good at math and bad at writing or aspiring to be a doctor or engineer – while also working with students to identify what is unique about them. Shyong discusses the practices of Crystal Zell, the assistant director of counseling at HS2 Academy, when helping her Asian American clients:

“If a student wants to be an engineer, she (Crystal Zell) makes sure to show other options. She sends affluent students to volunteer in poor neighborhoods. Branch out from tennis, or chess club, or taekwondo, she tells them. Learn a language other than Chinese. Avoid writing your essay about your parents’ journey to America” (Shyong 2015: 3).

HS2 Academy, along with other college preparatory businesses with the same motives, teach their Asian American clients how to essentially show college admissions officers through their application that they have the cultural capital that the university officials value and seek in their ideal student body, but immediately assume their Asian applicants are without. Accordingly, in order to gain such cultural capital, as claimed by these businesses, it is necessary to look as least stereotypically Asian as possible.

However, working-class Asian families that cannot afford such help are still at a complete loss of how to navigate the college admissions process, and are thus at a complete disadvantage. Again, these Asian American applicants from poor, immigrant families are then the most disadvantaged group in the college applicant pool: they do not receive the preferential treatment than “underrepresented” minorities do; they continue to be trapped under the Asian umbrella of high expectations; they are competing with white applicants who have the cultural capital that they themselves are completely unacquainted with; they are at a total loss when it comes to legacy admissions; and finally, they do not have access, as some affluent Asian Americans do, to the resources that can help them navigate such a foreign process and enlighten them of ways in which to put themselves forward on college applications that will attract the attention and avoid the common neglect of college admissions offices.


Much of the literature that has been written on the topic of Asian American discrimination in the college admissions process is dated back to the late 20th century when signs of limiting quotas restricting Asian American admission were first apparent. Most scholars have admitted to the difficulty of collecting official and comprehensive admissions data due to policies of confidentiality. However, based on more recent articles, like those from the Los Angeles Times discussed in this paper, and scholarly works, such as Daniel Golden’s The Price of Admission, which I also utilized within my research, it is clear that Asian Americans have not yet defeated the discrimination in the college admissions process that began in the 1980s. Evidently, Asian American applicants are still struggling with this obstacle when trying to gain entry into the nation’s elite universities, finding ways to navigate such a confusing, subjective system in which they are powerless. What may be most telling of the continuing existence of such discrimination is this past November’s court case Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University. The lawsuit against Harvard was catalyzed by the actions of Edward Blum, the director of the non-profit organization Project on Fair Representation. Blum launched a site, HavardNotFair.org, with the purpose of finding students who claimed they were not admitted to Harvard because of their race in order to participate in the coming lawsuit. This legal case places a special focus on Asian American students, citing public data that illustrates Harvard purposefully limiting the percentage of Asian American freshmen it admits, a percentage lower than it was 20 years ago, despite the fact that the number of highly qualified Asian American applicants to Harvard has nearly doubled within that time (Delwiche, 2014). This lawsuit thus suggests that Asian American students are still actively being discriminated against in the Harvard admissions process through its use of “racial-balancing” (Delwiche, 2014). If Harvard, the center of past scrutiny and criticism for its biased admissions policies and practices, discussed throughout this paper, is continuing to face the same charges of restricting Asian American enrollment today, it is fair to assume that other higher education institutions across the nation are still guilty of discriminating against Asian American applicants, as well.

Will Asians ever overcome this discrimination and rise above triumphant as the Jews have successfully done? Is it fair to label Asians today as the “new Jews” of the admissions world? I argue that the Asian experience is not comparable enough to the Jewish experience to validly predict the same eventual outcome for Asian American applicants. With the end of World War I and the onset of Word War II, the discrimination Jewish applicants faced in the 1920s was rooted in the wave of anti-Semitism that plagued American society during that era. However, Jewish students today are widely desired for their intellectual prowess, with universities, having profusely apologized for once limiting Jewish enrollment, even dedicating resources to target and recruit Jewish applicants (Golden 2006: 200). However, discrimination against Asian American applicants in the college admissions process is not based on an anti-Semitic type of overt, societal racism against Asians. College admissions officials, who once termed the typical Jewish student as a “greasy grind” (Golden 2006: 201), are not justifying their rejection of Asian applicants with outwardly false and negative stereotypes. There is instead an unconscious, micro-level racism, exemplified by the racial stereotypes and cultural bias reigning over these college admissions offices, that is the cause of Asian applicants’ downfall in the college admissions process. The stereotypes were not created out of thin air, but are grounded in an unfortunate twist of the “model minority” label. Seemingly positive attributes in conjunction with cultural bias are used to criticize and reject Asian applicants. They are not hated, but deemed “all the same” and to exude all the same attributes, creating this sort of micro-racism that is harder to prove, and thus harder to change. College admissions officials’ reasoning, clouded by these stereotypes, are not centered around the Asian race itself, but their failure to individualize their Asian applicants and appreciate the Asian applicants’ distinct, nuanced experiences.

Figure 1 - College Board Graph

The “too many Asians” argument suggests an existing fear that Asians will make up the majority of the student population at elite universities, taking over the white majority’s position. Why do these elite universities feel the need to comprise the majority of the student body with white students? Is it genuinely in order to stay true to the racial composition of the country? Jewish students have, for the most part, become completely assimilated into American society and the realm of elite higher education, with many Jewish applications having some sort of admission hook. One must ask whether or not this is partially due to the fact that Jews in the United States are, for the most part, white, and thus physically blend in with the white majority. Charts showing the racial makeup of a university’s student body do not have “Jewish” as a separate category. A “Jewish” checkbox under the category regarding race and ethnicity on the college application does not exist alongside “Black,” “Latino,” “Asian,” and so forth. They are, for the most part, included in the “white” section of these charts, having checked the “white” checkbox on the college application. This will never be the case for Asian Americans, who are both ethnically and racially different from the white majority. Figure 0 shows a graph created out of the statistics offered on the College Board website using the racial makeup of the student body at every Ivy League institution, along with Stanford and MIT. As illustrated, the majority of the student body at each university is made up of white students, for the most part almost doubling the percentage of Asian students. The fear that there will be “too many Asians” illustrates a new form of exclusion that is difficult to grasp, as there is not an overt effort to shut out all Asians, but an effort to not allow all in. Perhaps this is connected to the notion that the white applicant pool is internally more diverse, whereas the Asian pool is made up of Asian applicants who are “all the same.” Once again, this would point to the pervasive micro-racism that works to continue the ongoing racial stereotyping and unfair cultural bias present in college admissions offices. As we have seen, all Asian Americans, even by just considering the diversity of the various subpopulations within the Asian American minority group, are not the same.

Further reports and investigations to prove this discrimination would be difficult to conduct, and in the end, fruitless. It is clear that Asian American applicants are still implicitly being shut out of elite institutions, not because of a prejudiced hatred towards Asians, but because of the prevailing micro-level racism that perpetuates the notion that they are all the same and there thus cannot be too many in a given university. There exists a few policy recommendations that have the potential to work towards ameliorating the discrimination plaguing the Asian American experience within the college admissions process. First, sensitivity training of the admissions staff to the different experiences, not only of Asian Americans, but of all minority groups, should be required (Bunzel & Au 1987: 59). This may help college admissions officials to realize the injustice of their use of racial stereotypes and cultural biases when evaluating Asian applicants. It will teach them the necessity of looking at each applicant, regardless of race, at an individual level, giving them a fair, genuine assessment. Furthermore, bringing more Asian Americans into key positions in the administration and the admissions offices of these universities could also be beneficial, as these Asian Americans could offer more unbiased, accurate perspectives on the Asian student body to their co-workers that are judging and evaluation the Asian American population. Lastly, borrowing an idea developed by Berkley’s Chancellor Heymen (Takagi 1990: 587), the creation of an Admissions Coordination Board, whose main function would be to consult with community organizations about admissions policy, acting as a structure that would institutionalize dialogue between minority community groups and the admissions office, could lead college admissions offices on a path that will soon end their utilization of stereotyped practices in their evaluation of Asian American applicants. Advice and simple communication between the two groups regarding what policies are just and unjust can help admissions offices arrive at admissions practices and polices that every group is happy with.

Valid predictions are hard to make, but as time progresses and generations of Asian Americans are created, Asian applicants will begin to gain the cultural capital, harbored by their white counterparts, that they were once unaware of because of their immigrant beginnings. If the micro-racism and racial stereotyping is not reduced within these college admissions offices, Asian applicants could be shut out even more, as the threat of Asians composing the majority of these elite universities’ student body would be greater than ever. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if policy recommendations, like those suggested above, are adopted and universities internally work together to outgrow this micro-racism, college admissions officials will realize that it is not a fight they are able to or even should fight, and Asians will then quite possibly become the eventual majority population on elite college campuses. If this should happen, it is essential for all society to understand that this would not be a result of unfair advantages being given to Asian Americans, but the effect of unfair advantages being removed (Bunzel & Au 1987: 62). As Northwestern’s sociology and Asian American studies professor Carolyn Chen so rightfully noted in the Los Angeles Times, “The way we treat these children will influence the America we become. If our most renowned schools set implicit quotas for high-achieving Asian Americans, we are sending a message to all students that hard work and good grades may be a fool’s errand” (Chen 2012: 3). However, the change necessary in order for the nation to better itself and evoke the virtuous message, now seemingly lost, that a hard work ethic is not in fact fruitless cannot just come from within the college admissions offices, but must come from within society as a whole. We, as a society, must become conscious of the micro-racism that may be implicitly guiding our judgments of those who are undeserving of such pre-conceived, biased notions. As college admissions officials must treat each college applicant, regardless of race, with respect, equality, and neutrality, we, too, must treat those around us with these same honorable values. Consequently, the hard work of some must not be punished, but the hard work and accomplishments of all must be praised. However, what is most crucial is that we learn to value a diversity that is not just rooted in race, but in character, in culture, and in experience.


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